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Galbreath v. Hale County

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Northern Division

August 8, 2017

TRICIA GALBREATH, Plaintiff,
v.
HALE COUNTY, ALABAMA COMMISSION, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER ON MOTION FOR REINSTATEMENT OR FRONT PAY

          CALLIE V. S. GRANADE, SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on a motion for equitable relief in the form of reinstatement or, alternatively, front pay filed by Plaintiff Tricia Galbreath (“Galbreath”) (Doc. 82), a response in opposition filed by Defendants Hale County, Alabama Commission and Hale County, Alabama (“Defendants”) (Doc. 98), and a reply filed by Galbreath (Doc. 107). Based on the reasons set forth below, Galbreath's motion is DENIED in part, and GRANTED in part.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         This case arises out of Galbreath's termination from the Hale County Commission as its County Administrator. When Galbreath began her employment with the Hale County Commission, she was provided and signed for a copy of the Hale County Personnel Policy (the “Policy”). Additionally, Galbreath and Defendants executed several employment contracts throughout her term of employment. During a county commission meeting on June 18, 2013, the Hale County Commission voted to terminate Galbreath's employment.

         Based on her termination, Galbreath filed a multi-count complaint against Defendants. After the Court dismissed several claims at the motion to dismiss and summary judgment stage, Galbreath proceeded to trial with three claims remaining: (1) a Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process claim brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (2) a state-law breach of contract claim; and (3) a state-law wrongful termination claim. Galbreath's claims were tried before a jury on March 23, 2017, through March 27, 2017. The jury returned a verdict in Galbreath's favor on all three claims. See (Doc. 73-1). The jury awarded Galbreath $8, 000.00 in damages for any emotional pain and mental anguish she suffered from the date of her termination to the date of the jury's verdict. Id. at 5. The jury also awarded Galbreath $128, 600.00 in damages for lost wages and lost benefits from the date of Galbreath's discharge to the date of the jury's verdict. Id. Galbreath now contends she is due reinstatement to her position as County Administrator for Hale County. Alternatively, she argues for front pay if the Court determines that reinstatement is unsuitable.

         II. WHETHER REINSTATEMENT IS AN AVAILABLE REMEDY

         Galbreath contends that she prefers to be and is entitled to reinstatement as County Administrator for Hale County. (Doc. 82, p. 2). Reinstatement, she continues, is the most likely means of redress that would provide complete relief and allow her to further her career. Id. at 3. She contends that she is well qualified for the position, which has not been filled. Id. Further, she points out that the 2012 Contract required a unanimous termination vote from the Commission. Id. Because there was not a unanimous vote, Galbreath insists that she was never actually terminated. Id.

         Defendants begin their response by resurrecting their McKinney v. Pate, 20 F.3d 1550 (11th Cir. 1994), argument and contend Galbreath is not due prospective equitable relief because they are entitled judgment as a matter of law on Galbreath's due process claim. (Doc. 98, p. 1). The Court has previously rejected Defendants' McKinney argument at multiple points in this case. For the reasons previously stated, the Court again finds unpersuasive Defendants' claim for relief on this basis.

         Next, Defendants argue that Galbreath offers no caselaw to support her position. (Doc. 98, p. 4). Defendants maintain that the proper measure of prospective equitable relief due “is simply to order a hearing take place.” Id. Defendants aver that what Galbreath now asks the Court to order would “bypass the termination process altogether and rule on the merits of her termination” by reinstating Galbreath. Id. at 6. Defendants continue, the Court can only assess whether the necessary procedures were utilized, not whether the termination decision was wise or substantively correct. Defendants insist that reinstatement would be inequitable for several reasons: (1) it would put Galbreath in a better position than she would have been had she had a pre-termination hearing and (2) it punishes Defendants when Galbreath did not avail herself of any post-termination grievance procedures. Id. at 8-9.

         It is a “well-settled principle that the nature and scope of the remedy are to be determined by the violation, which means simply that federal-court decrees must directly address and relate to the constitutional violation itself.” Milliken v. Bradley, 433 U.S. 267, 282 (1977). The leading case for damages in a procedural due process case is Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247 (1978). The Carey Court held that compensation for injuries emanating from the deprivation of a constitutional right “should be tailored to the interests protected by the particular right in question.” Id. at 259. The Carey Court went on to conclude that “compensatory damages for a procedural due process violation may not be awarded absent proof of actual injury. The Court further held, however, that even in the absence of such proof, ‘the denial of procedural due process should be actionable for nominal damages.' ” Franklin v. Aycock, 795 F.2d 1253, 1263 (6th Cir. 1986) (quoting Carey, 435 U.S. at 266)). Carey, however, did not reach the particular issue of equitable relief.

         It is within the sound discretion of a district court whether to award equitable relief. Goldstein v. Manhattan Indus., Inc., 758 F.2d 1435, 1448 (11th Cir. 1985). A court decides “the propriety of equitable relief based on the facts as found by the jury.” Haskins v. Boaz, 822 F.2d 1014, 1015 (11th Cir. 1987) (citation omitted) (emphasis in original).

         Neither party offers caselaw from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals addressing whether and when reinstatement is an available remedy for a pre-termination procedural due process violation. In fact, Defendants maintain Galbreath provides no such citation “apparently because no such case exists.” (Doc. 98, p. 4). But the Court is not left rudderless in its current analysis. A case from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals is instructive and persuasive as to when the equitable remedy of reinstatement is an available remedy. In Hopkins v. Saunders, 199 F.3d 968 (8th Cir. 2000), a terminated employee brought a § 1983 action against his employer for, among other things, a violation of procedural due process at the pre-termination stage. On remand from the Eighth Circuit for several reasons, the district court found that the plaintiff had a property interest in his employment and did not receive the notice and a hearing due process requires prior to his termination. Id. at 975. Even so, the district court awarded only nominal damages to the plaintiff because the court found the termination was justified and, therefore, refused reinstatement. Id.

         Both parties appealed the district court's decision. The Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court's property interest determination; however, the district court's award of nominal damages was found to constitute “legal relief” rather than equitable relief, which was contrary to the court's earlier decision and remand. This portion of the district court's order was vacated. Relying on Carey's holding that federal law dictates the appropriate remedy in a procedural due process claim, the Eighth Circuit explained, in relevant part:

The Supreme Court defined the proper remedy for the denial of procedural due process in Carey v. Piphus, holding that the remedy for a procedural due process violation is defined by the extent of the injury that resulted from the denial of constitutionally required process. 435 U.S. at 263-64; see also Peery v. Brakke, 826 F.2d 740, 747 (8th Cir. 1987). Thus, in the context of public employment, reinstatement is proper only where a tenured employee would not have been dismissed if his procedural due process right had been observed…. Where an employee would have been ...

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